Law School Academic Support Blog

Editor: Amy Jarmon
Texas Tech Univ. School of Law

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Revamping your law school strategy

I  just finished a workshop for 1L's on revamping their law school strategy.  I always give a start-of-the-spring semester workshop, but I wanted to make this year's different.  It's always a challenge to present to students in new and exciting ways; it's easy to get stuck in a rut and use the same strategies.  This semester, I am vowing to use more active learning exercises in my workshops. I thought active learning was a particular challenge while preparing the workshop because some of them have been standing room only--more than 100 students.  I use what I call "quasi-active" learning in many of my big classes; I ask questions and solicit student suggestions, but the students play a minimal role in the actual lesson.  With my background in teaching at the elementary school level, I am most comfortable teaching to a class with less than 30 students.  In my discomfort, I revert to the lecture-with-visuals strategy I know is not particularly effective when the workshops grow to 80 or more participants. 

But as I prepared, I started to reevaluate why I was so uncomfortable with changing strategies. Maybe it wasn't that I didn't think active learning strategies could be used with large groups of students; Kris Franklin, Alison Nissen, and Mike Schwartz's presentations at AALS used active learning strategies in a room with 100+ people.  The ASP and Teaching Methods joint meeting was one of the most fun AALS meetings I have ever attended, because I was allowed to play with the material, and I wanted ot try some of their techniques myself. But my initial discomfort is one that I have heard other professor's lament; active learning requires letting go of (the illusion of) control in the classroom.  I feel comfortable sharing the class with my students when I have fewer than 30 students; in fact, I don't feel comfortable playing "sage-on-the-stage" in smaller classes.   During the two years I was working on my MA in Education and my thesis, I was taught active learning was the only way to go, and it was modeled by the professors who taught my graduate courses.  As a result of the teaching in my graduate program, I know everyone shares "control" in a classroom, and it is an illusion that a teacher can "control" learning or behavior. I never applied active learning to a large class because we did not have, nor did we teach, to large classes in my graduate program. So I reverted to a modified version of the teaching methods used by my (law) professors in large classes because I didn't know how to transfer the lessons from one type of class to another.

It required some self-reflection both during the planning and after the execution of the workshop for me to reach some conclusions about the source of my discomfort.  I know the fundamental teaching principles do not change when the number of students in the room goes from 20 to 100 or more.  In a room of 30 people or less, I have the ability to engage each student personally, by asking questions and soliciting the opinions of everyone in the room. I can manage chatter by calling on students who seem lost or distracted.  I can address confusion without losing the rest of the class.  It's very difficult to do that is a large class; you just can't reach everyone personally.  Most importantly, I learned in graduate school how to build a sense of camaraderie and trust in small classes, and I don't know how to build those into large workshops.  When I trust my students and they trust me, we, as a class, feel comfortable taking risks with our learning. But if I don't trust the class, I replace that need for trust into a need for control.  It's an emotional response that undermines critical learning goals. 

But I took the leap.  I knew I had to try harder to employ active learning to all groups, large and small.  I figured that if the lesson flopped, at least I had tried.  I felt awkward standing at the front of the class, not talking, during the think and pair portions of think-pair-share.   I would have sworn that the students were bored when I asked them to think on their own.  But I caught myself learning from my students. I learned two new strategies for approaching case briefing and outlining that I will be sharing with future classes.   

Then I looked at the evaluations.  Except for one, they were overwhelmingly positive. It struck me that many of the students took the time to fill in the "comment" section on the evaluation (something they rarely do), and note how great it was that they could talk to their classmates about different strategies for reading, case briefing, and outlining. And that one negative evaluation...based on the comments, I don't know if I could have reached the student using any other teaching method. 

I learned you can build trust in a large classroom.  Using Mike Schwartz's think-pair-share, I could reach each group in the classroom.  I could still reach students confused about the material, but I had the additional support of their classmates as I brainstormed how to approach their issue.  Students who are uncomfortable speaking in a large class felt comfortable speaking to classmates in their group, and their group members could share their insights with the rest of the class.  (RCF)

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